The Design Process

Tight design constraints, and a lot of trial and error: Robert Slimbach didn’t have much elbow room as he developed Acumin, but his careful dedication paid off.

Acumin developed from a simple idea and turned into a complex type family. At first, the design brief was for a single family of regular and bold, with matching italics, that could be used primarily in forms and in online documents – the very places that Helvetica, Univers, and their descendants and imitators are so often used. But it quickly became clear that more was needed: a more complete suite of typefaces and typographic voices, suitable for a very wide range of uses, including continuous text. A system, in other words.

When Robert Slimbach saw the movie Helvetica, his thought was: but it’s all signage! There was no talk about text. He reflected that Helvetica had always been a display typeface, never really designed for text, but that it had become so popular that it got forced into the mold of a text typeface and used that way constantly. It could be very appealing for that use, with its even appearance, but its design parameters and letterfit didn’t really suit text.

As a type designer, Slimbach has always focused on text – and on the calligraphic roots of type. As he thought about a new neo-grotesque, his first impetus was to reinvent the category, to make it “much more human.” But he realized that “human” really wasn’t what neo-grotesques were about; the defining features of neo-grotesques are their neutrality and their architectural structure. So he had to severely restrain his urge to soften or personalize the design too much. Still, he managed to introduce warmth and humanity into it in a very subtle way. And he resolved to push the boundaries of the category wherever possible.

Acumin’s design space covers a range of widths from Extra Condensed to Wide, and weights from Thin to Ultra Black – all with corresponding italics.

In designing Acumin, Slimbach was dealing in subtleties, not new design features. He took a look at the basic problem of what he called “the reduction in form of the modern serif structure,” taking to heart an idea that has been proposed before: that the structure of a grotesque is, historically, the same as that of a modern-style serif face, but without the high contrast and without the serifs. (Martin Majoor, among others, has demonstrated that the skeleton of a grotesque like Akzidenz Grotesk is essentially the same as the underlying form of Walbaum or Didot typefaces.) Slimbach deliberately avoided looking at existing neo-grotesques as he set out to design Acumin; instead, he worked out his own formula for this “reduction” from the modern. The challenge, he felt, was to come up with something “both generic and new.”

He began at the heart of the design: the regular weight, normal width. That was the version that had to work first; everything else would proceed from there. Although he experimented with different design features, he kept coming back to an essentially neutral style, which seemed to reflect what people use a neo-grotesque for in practice. The regular weight and width would, he felt, be the most generic; it would “fit between text and display,” and work equally well for both purposes. The extremes of the weight and width axes, on the other hand, would be clearly intended for display use; their spacing as well as their forms would reflect this.

“I designed the more moderate weights and widths,” says Slimbach, “primarily with text usage in mind. However, these designs also work surprisingly well for display.”

The Acumin family is a coordinated system of weights and widths, echoing the system pioneered by Adrian Frutiger’s Univers family in the late 1950s, but featuring an even wider range, making it a very large type family indeed. As he worked, Slimbach divided Acumin’s “design spaces” into many sections, creating many different master designs from which intermediate versions might be interpolated, ending up with “lots of little multiple masters.” But it wasn’t all interpolation. Far from it.

As Acumin moves from Wide to Condensed, its rounds compress, with the most narrow width, Extra Condensed, having totally flat sides.

Each of Acumin’s five widths has its own personality: the narrower the design, the flatter the sides of the curved letters are. In the Condensed width, the sides are nearly flat, while the Wide is round and almost geometric, instead of the wide oval that you might otherwise expect. Slimbach intended the Semi-Condensed — only slightly narrower than the regular — as “an alternative text width,” useful in charts, captions, and narrow columns as well as for display. He regards it as “a new voice added to the mix.” Even the Condensed is not so narrow that it can’t be used in text; the counters are deliberately kept open for this purpose. The Extra Condensed, however, with its close fit and its column-like counters, is solely intended for display use. Overall, Slimbach describes what he did as “finessing the voices within the broader family.”

He designed the full range of italics separately from the roman, but he designed them using oblique forms rather than true italic forms. This reflects the usual italic style in grotesque typefaces. He tuned the weight and width in the oblique forms, making them slightly lighter and narrower than their upright counterparts and giving them “subtle but restrained script qualities,” so that the italics would function properly as a “contrasting voice” to the romans.

Following the traditional model of grotesque type families, Acumin’s italics are more rigid than the “cursive” italics from classic oldstyle typefaces.

The design process involved an enormous amount of trial and error. Slimbach tried countless experiments, tweaking stroke modulation, the amount of contrast, and the degree of roundedness in the counters, breaking the multiple masters into smaller and smaller increments, to generate specific designs. He tried to let the style dictate the natural tendency of each width and weight; for example, the overhangs of rounded letters like c, s, and e – the curves that have to extend slightly below the baseline and above the x-height in order to give the optical effect of being aligned – would push the design in certain directions. In bolder weights, he found that the overhangs needed to be greater, which in turn dictated that the sides of those letters should be flatter.

Each of Acumin’s styles have slightly different vertical proportions appropriate for their weight and width. As weight increases, the x-height grows and ascenders shorten – illustrated here with a series of successively heavier i’s.

The Wide was intended as another alternate text width, so he gave it a more round than stretched shape, and refrained from drawing an extra-wide version. He felt that this would be better for both text and display.

Slimbach tried to give a logical progression to all the weights and widths of Acumin, but a progression that took into account the purpose and nature of each variation — striving for a natural range of forms that would feel neutral but never cold or mechanical.

The Design Approach

Slimbach approached the process of designing Acumin mostly in isolation, not making direct comparisons with existing neo-grotesques. For inspiration, rather than researching the history of the style, he observed what he saw “around town”: how neo-grotesque typefaces were used in his everyday environment. Even though there wasn’t a lot of latitude for innovation, he wanted to bring to the form “what came through me.”

In “calibrating the regular width,” he did compare texts set in Helvetica and Univers to understand the expected parameters of weight and width. Beyond that, he relied on direct trial and error, constructing the shapes directly onscreen.

Subtle features help distinguish Acumin from other neo-grotesques: slightly angled terminals on baseline crossbars, a J that doesn’t curl all the way up, lowercase letters that ascend above the cap height, a single-stroke comma, numerals that are proportional and slightly shorter than the cap height by default.

One characteristic of most neo-grotesques is that the ascenders, the caps, and the dots on the i and j all align to the same height. This gives the typeface a modular quality that makes it easy to stack tightly-spaced multiline headlines, something that was very popular in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Acumin breaks that restriction, and Slimbach feels that varying these heights makes the face “truly neutral for reading” as well as warmer and more elegant for display use. He adapted the alignments of those features to the different weights and widths, so each one would feel natural and flow easily.

He gave Acumin subtle features like proportional numerals (which are on by default) and ff ligatures (the design doesn’t really require the other f-ligatures). The design of the comma is clearly differentiated from the design of the period, which is not true in many neo-grotesque typefaces. He opted for a curved, single-stroke comma, rather than the typical period-with-a-tail; a “display entity,” he calls it, which disappears in text. It appears streamlined at display sizes, while at text sizes it’s functional, making a clear distinction from the period.

Further subtleties adding to Acumin’s style are the slightly angled terminals on baseline crossbars, like in the uppercase E and L.

Another carefully thought-out detail was the design of the capital J. He wanted to avoid the “candy-cane style,” so he gave it a cut-off form – again, more streamlined – that he felt would be less obtrusive in text and provide a more balanced presence within all-caps settings.

Slimbach designed the medium weights to be a secondary text weight, especially suitable for use on a screen. At smaller text sizes, both onscreen and in print, the medium weight gives more presence to the text.